Politics and art mix all the time at art fairs -- but generally it's about who knows the director and gets the best spot. Civil rights don't come up very often, unless you're honest enough to notice that they're aren't very many artists of color in most shows. But that's another topic.
I experienced three "firsts" at the River Arts Fest in Memphis last weekend. The first "first" was shortly after the show opened on Friday evening. Apparently the fire department forgot the street was closed -- or didn't care. Two full sized fire trucks tore down the street at 50 miles an hours, with lights and sirens, just inches from the packed art tents and patrons. After the emergency was over, they came back through an a more leisurely but no less treacherous 30 miles an hour! When those trucks almost nick the awing of your tent with tens of thousands of art in it, it's a little nerve wracking!
Then a patron wanted his picture taken with me! How cool is that! Guess he likes middle-aged, chubby bohemian types!
But here's the one that stuck with me: the art fair had a protester! And I can't say I completely disagreed with her.
The fair was set up on Main Street. Not a charming Main Street or a bustling Main Street. In Memphis, Main Street is struggling. The sidewalks are crumbling. The store fronts are empty.
The Lorraine Motel is a block away. For those under 50 or those who don't remember their Civil Rights history, the Lorraine Motel is place where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. It's been preserved and now is the home to the National Civil Rights Museum. You must go there. But be prepared. It's not a happy place. I haven't been there in five years but I still tear up when I remember coming around a corner and being confronted by a burnt out city bus. Not a model of a bus -- but one of the actual buses that was burnt and destroyed with innocent people inside -- all because they asked to be treated like people.
I was a young teen was Dr. King was killed. A few months later, Bobby Kennedy was killed. Malcolm X had been dead three years. John Kennedy for five. It was Vietnam. It was Watts. My teen years were not peaceful ones. This stuff sticks with you forever and shows up in art and opinions and everyday life.
When the protester came around, I talked to her. She had a good point. The art fair had set up a music stage in front of the Lorraine Motel. That didn't seem right to me either. The stage is the place where fair goers drink and dance and enjoy themselves. The stage should have been moved.
But the protester didn't like that the artists were on Main Street either. I disagreed with that. Every artist there is a small business person. None of us is getting rich. We're not exploiting anyone. We're not polluting or destroying natural resources for our own gain.
We are people making our own way in the world and trying to support our families. If our art can make someone smile or think -- so much the better.
Art saves lives. If art can bring people back to Memphis' Main Street and help revitalize it, then Dr. King's memory has been honored -- not desecrated.